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The Catholic Imagination in the Lord of the Rings: The Eschatological Imagination

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Liturgy and Evangelization

Contact Author

Editor’s note:  This essay was originally given through the Theology and Film series sponsored by the Notre Dame Department of Theology and the Institute for Church Life. For Oblation, the essay will appear in four parts, I.  The Elves Leave Middle EarthII. The Fallen Imagination, III.  The Christological Imagination, and IV. The Eschatological Imagination.    

The Eschatological Imagination

Contemporary film has a particularly difficult time with eschatology, the last things, the final transformation of the world.  In the books, the journey of the hobbits does not conclude with the Last Battle, with the ring’s destruction at Mt. Doom.  For, the darkness has descended upon the Shire itself.  And, that despite the conquering of the light, some darkness remains even close to home.  That death itself remains.  Two more clips, one between Gandalf and Pippin and the other a text from the book itself with scenes from the film (the poetry of the last scene is brought out best through the text of the book itself).



It is perhaps in eschatology itself that The Lord of the Rings is closest to the Catholic imagination.  For, there is an eschatological realism to The Lord of the Rings not found in Harry Potter, for example.  At the end of Harry’s battle, at the conclusion of his own gift, he goes back to London and begins to live the suburban dream.  What change has taken place?  What future exists beyond house and job and wife and kids?  On the other hand, The Lord of the Rings recognizes that we’re all on a journey (in fact, I couldn’t choose a single image of this pilgrim motif, because I’d have to show the whole film).  A great adventure.  And that the wounds from this journey make us long for true and abiding rest.  But, we cannot speed this rest along.  Our story proceeds in such a way that we won’t recognize when the end will come.  That each of our narratives is moving toward an end, but in the meantime like Sam, we abide in a community in which our only response can be one of self-giving love.  Of the joys of friendship and beer and pipe-smoking and elevensies.

For at least implicitly, The Lord of the Rings demands of the reader or viewer that he or she pick up the narrative where Sam left it off.  There is no end to the text, no happily ever-after.  In this way, the final chapter has more in common with the last moments of the book of Revelation in the Scriptures.  It enflames the imagination for what one day will be possible but is not yet fully present:  “See, the home of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every treat from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4).  And perhaps, this is at least what makes The Lord of the Rings an enduring piece of literature, and now, of film.  We journey with Frodo, with Aragorn, with Gandalf, with Sam, with Merry and Pippin because our lives are also a journey.  And the path is not always easy, and at times, the darkness is seemingly more real than the light.  And the Catholic imagination does not deny this darkness, nor the joys that come about through the journey that we call a life.  Rather, it perceives them as a gradual capacitation for what we will one day enjoy as we too embark upon our voyage upon the seas.  Our wounds will not disappear.  Nor will our loves.  And so too, our stories will be continued by those who come after us, until the age when all stories come to an end.


The Catholic Imagination in the Lord of the Rings: The Christological Imagination

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Liturgy and Evangelization

Contact Author

Editor’s note:  This essay was originally given through the Theology and Film series sponsored by the Notre Dame Department of Theology and the Institute for Church Life. For Oblation, the essay will appear in four parts, I.  The Elves Leave Middle Earth, II. The Fallen Imagination, III.  The Christological Imagination, and IV. The Eschatological Imagination.    

Nothing is more automatic to a reader or spectator of western literature or film than to seek the Christ-figure in a novel, story, or movie.  Yet, strictly speaking, there is no Aslan in The Lord of the Rings.  No single figure who perfectly represents the marriage of humanity and divinity, of salvific love made available through Jesus Christ.  But, this does not mean that the Christological imagination is not operative in The Lord of the Rings.  Instead, it is refracted through a variety of characters, four of whom we will watch clips on presently:  Gandalf, Aragorn, Samwise Gamgee, and of course, Frodo.





In some ways, Gandalf is the most obvious of the Christological figures.  He is a powerful wizard, friend of elves, who walks nonetheless among the hobbits, the halflings.  And in an act of ultimate self-giving love, he saves them in mines of Moria.  When Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas encounter him now transfigured in white in Fangorn Forest, the novel describes the scene:  “They all gazed at him.  His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand.  Between wonder, joy, and fear they stood and found no words to say” (102).  He remembers that he is called Gandalf, and says to them, “Indeed I am Saruman, one might almost say, Saruman as he should have been” (102).  For unlike Saruman, Gandalf has chosen to believe in a world beyond the visible, beyond power and prestige.  He has offered himself for the lives of halflings, of a Middle-Earth that he could have chosen to escape.  And the depths of this love is made visible to all who now gaze upon Gandalf.  But, it should be said that Gandalf’s gift of self, his own transformation, is not the end of the story.  Battles remain to be fought.  And it is not he who will bear the ring but the very hobbits he has chosen to cast his lot with.

Likewise, Aragorn participates in his own descent into the dead.  Throughout the first two volumes of the trilogy, he denies his status as king, as the descendent capable of rescuing men from their own darkness.  Yet like Gandalf, he casts his lot with the hobbits, with those lower than himself.  But when he descends into the cave of the dead, bringing forth the army that will rescue Middle-Earth, the king has returned (a kind of mythic type of Christ descending into hell).  The flower upon the tree in Gondor blooms.  And it is Aragorn, not Gandalf, who will become the king upon the throne (Gandalf speaking to Aragorn):  “This is your realm, and the heart of the greater realm that shall be.  The Third Age of the world is ended, and the new age is begun; and it is your task to order its beginning and to preserve what may be preserved.  For through much has been saved, much must now pass away…For the time has come of the Dominion of Men and the Elder Kindred shall fade or depart” (269).  And he himself marries the elf Arwen, the Evenstar of the Elves, whose beauty Frodo remarks:  “At last, I understand why we have waited!  This is the ending.  Now not day only shall be beloved, but night too shall be beautiful and blessed and all its fears pass away!’” (271). Together, Aragorn and Arwen are a kind of image of Christ and the Church, of the Bride and the Bridegroom so essential to a Christological understanding of the Church.

Finally, one must address the Christological character of both Sam and Frodo.  And in many ways, they cannot be separated.  For Frodo takes up the ring, recognizing that it is his burden to bear even into the fires of Mordor.  And Sam goes with him, showing forth a model of friendship that is a pure gift.  Frodo and Sam become icons of the suffering servant, of kenotic love.  For it must be remembered that neither have any knowledge of the successes in the battles at home.  Neither know that Gandalf has been raised been from the dead, that Aragorn has assumed his kingship.  Instead, they march on to Mordor, unsure of what will be asked of them.  Frodo empties himself, even to the point of death, even to the point that the temptation of the ring proves to be too much (again, it should be said that Tolkien is dealing with images of Christ, not Christologies).  But, in some sense, it is Sam that shows forth the greatest icon of self-giving love.  He alone is unaffected by the power of the ring.  Because, he recognizes that his sole desire is to be a friend to Frodo, whatever it may require.  And should we be surprised that when Frodo and Gandalf and Galadriel have sailed off at the end of both the film and the book, it is Sam’s story that continues.  As Frodo says:

“I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me.  It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger; some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.  But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you.  And also you have Rose, and Elanor; and Frodo-lad will come, and Rosie-lass, and Merry, and Goldilocks, and Pippin; and perhaps more that I cannot see.  Your hands and your wits will be needed everywhere…and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more” (338).

Sam, in some sense, becomes a kind of catechist of the narrative, a preacher, traditioning the deepest truths about the created world, and its history, down through the ages.  If the songs of the elves are to ring out upon the lips of mortals, it will be because of Sam’s proclamation of these songs within the peaceful Shire.

So, in the Lord of the Rings, because the figure of Christ is shared among many, we are drawn in some way to a great insight:  that the human person is called to figure Christ into the world, to imitate Christ in our own times and place.  That, there is no single Christ figure, because in a world in which Christ ascended into heaven, each Christian is called to manifest this image of Christ within the plot that one finds oneself.  In some sense, the discernment of vocation is precisely this:  how in my own narrative will I come to find a way to imitate Christ?

The Catholic Imagination in the Lord of the Rings: The Fallen Imagination

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Liturgy and Evangelization

Contact Author

Editor’s note:  This essay was originally given through the Theology and Film series sponsored by the Notre Dame Department of Theology and the Institute for Church Life. For Oblation, the essay will appear in four parts, I.  The Elves Leave Middle Earth, II. The Fallen Imagination, III.  The Christological Imagination, and IV. The Eschatological Imagination.    

The Fallen Imagination 

Of course, the beauty of The Lord of the Rings is that there is a tensive drama to the narrative.  A sense that things might not end well for the beloved characters.
That the powers of Mordor, made present through the anti-sacrament of the ring, will conquer Middle-Earth.  For indeed, each film and book of the trilogy acknowledges the weakness of the creature.  In the next three scenes, I invite you to consider this theme of the trilogy as a description of the fallen imagination.




What is the fallen imagination within The Lord of the Rings?  To answer this question, one must begin with the ring itself.  For the intention of the ring is to bind all creatures of Middle-Earth together under the power of Sauron:  “Three Rings for the Elven-kings under the sky, Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone, Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die, One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne/In the Land of Mordor where Shadows lie.  One Ring to rule them all.  One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them/In the Land of Mordor where the Shadows lie.”  Yet, such harmony is forced, an act of violence directed against freedom.  Consider the Orcs, who make up the citizenry of Mordor.  They are bound to the service of Sauron, but their own community is one of violence, of hostility, of disunity.  Though the Ring can bind all together, though its power can control, it cannot offer peace.  And many who are wise enough recognize this truth.  Gandalf refuses to take this ring, though tempted, because he knows that such absolute power will corrupt even the best of intentions.  So too for Aragorn and Galadriel.  It is only fallen men who believe that by using the power of the Ring they can defeat the darkness.  That they can become the Creator of the Ring, wield its power with true justice.  Yet, every attempt to use the Ring results in a further fragmentation of the men of Middle-Earth.  For the ring is a symbol of violence and forcefulness that misshapes every act of love.  Galadriel herself remarks when offered the ring:  “And now at last it comes.  You will give me the Ring freely!  In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen.  And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night!  Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain!  Dreadful as the Storm and Lightning!  Stronger than the foundations of the earth.  All shall love me and despair!” (410). Yet, the violence of the ring deforms the act of love such that rather than be bestowed with freedom, it becomes a burden, a requirement, no gift at all.  It is ironic that the ring, which turns Sméagol into Gollum, a human being into a deformed creature who cannot eat the Lembas bread or stand the light of day, is called my precious.  

Yet, one can conquer the power of the ring.  Middle-Earth forgot, over the course of time, that Sauron was once defeated by a fellowship that sought to defeat evil through good.  Perhaps, this is the great tragedy of both Saruman and Gollum.  It is not simply that they transgress but that they forget the possibility of good.  Saruman entered into allegiance with Sauron, because the latter’s power had grown too strong to be conquered.  Rather than respond to such evil with good, with a sense of hopefulness, Saruman the White invited darkness into Isengard.  And when he himself is finally conquered by the Ents, he remains entrenched in his own hopelessness, refusing to yield up the secrets of Sauron’s next move.  He has come to love the dark, such that he can no longer recognize the light.  When he first sees Gandalf after the battle of Isengard, he cannot perceive his former friend’s transfiguration.

For Gollum or Sméagol, the forgetfulness of the good is even more disastrous.  Murdering his brother to obtain the ring, his humanity is gradually disfigured by its power.  He forgets his own identity, his own bucolic hobbit-like existence.  Frodo and Sam, two creatures like himself, remind him through the calling out of a name of his former identity, and for a moment that part of himself inexplicably linked to the violence of the ring is conquered.  He believes again that he can carry out the good.  And I suppose the irony of both the film and the book is that he does, even when he himself is controlled by the power of the ring, when he is incapable of recognizing the good.  Without Gollum, the ring would not have been destroyed.  Frodo’s own will had become so misshapen that he could not toss the burden into the fires of Mt. Doom.  It is only through Gollum’s fall that the redemption of Middle-Earth is made possible.  In this way, Gollum is a kind of tragic rendering of a human life.  But just perhaps, he is saved upon his fall.  That as he descends into the fiery abyss, he finally recognizes the good achieved by the destruction of the ring.

Therefore, the fallen imagination as it operates in The Lord of the Rings is presented in images of violence, of forced love, of disunity of both self and the community.  And that no creature, despite his or her particular goodness, is immune from the temptation to seek to become the Creator rather than the creature.  Yet, the fall is not irrevocable.  Gollum serves as a tangible reminder that despite the worst disfigurement, the redemption of self-giving love remains a possibility.  There is a part of ourselves that the ring cannot destroy.  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot conquer it (Jn. 1:5).


The Catholic Imagination in the Lord of the Rings: The Elves Leave Middle Earth

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Liturgy and Evangelization

Contact Author

Editor’s note:  This essay was originally given through the Theology and Film series sponsored by the Notre Dame Department of Theology and the Institute for Church Life. For Oblation, the essay will appear in four parts, I.  The Elves Leave Middle Earth, II. The Fallen Imagination, III.  The Christological Imagination, and IV. The Eschatological Imagination.     

There is an inherent danger whenever one gives a public lecture on beloved pieces of literature or film.  In the case of The Lord of the Rings, the danger is two-fold.  The story of Frodo, Sam, Merry, Pip, Gandalf, Aragorn, and of course others, is deeply imprinted upon our imaginations not only through the books but the trilogy of films that gave flesh to the characters and places so dear to many of us.

A number of you know these stories so well, both the text and the film, that I risk public embarrassment in going into too much detail.  Like many American readers, my initial encounter with the series was after I had seen the first film, and wanting to know how the tale turned out, I read the remainder of the trilogy over a Christmas holiday.  And thus, I am no expert in the subtle grammars of Elvish, the distinctions between the plot of the movies and the books, or the mythological sources that Tolkien drew upon in creating the vivid world of the text.

But, as a Catholic theologian, I fashion myself as at least competent in what I would call the Catholic imagination.  That is, there are certain images, narratives, rhetorical or literary tropes, and characterizations peculiar to the mind formed in the ethos of Catholicism.  And that Tolkien, himself a faithful Catholic abiding in a post-Enlightenment England, permeates Middle Earth with certain features of this imagination.  This does not mean that The Lord of the Rings is an allegory.  The reader or movie-goer warps the narrative if he or she attempts to find a direct correspondence between the beloved characters of Middle Earth and the Scriptures, or specific doctrinal or ethical claims.  Rather, watching The Lord of the Rings, those formed in the Catholic imagination contemplate the topoi of Catholicism in a setting outside of anything recognizably Christian.  And such contemplation results in a seeding of the imagination, a deeper appreciation of what is at stake in the images, narratives, and signs of Catholicism itself.

Thus, what we perform today is a theology drawn from The Lord of the Rings.  For the film is not an imaginative and thus more palatable version of academic theology.  Indeed, The Lord of the Rings is just as much about World War II, European nationalism, as well as industrialization and its effects upon England as it is about anything explicitly theological (of course, perhaps this is the genius of Catholicism—that such historical realities are necessarily a matter of theological reflection) (Nicholas Boyle, Sacred and Secular Scriptures:  A Catholic Approach to Literature [Notre Dame, IN:  University of Notre Dame Press, 2005]:  248-66).  Tolkien is certainly not concerned with setting out a proper Christology, Eucharistic theology, or a theological account of the virtues.  He is telling a tale.  But, if we approach the text with openness to the enrichment of our own Catholic imaginations, to the sudden interruptions where an image requires us to perceive God anew, we may find that these films cultivate a robust theological imagination.  And that our work as theologians may benefit from this seeding of the imagination.

Thus, we shall proceed in the following way.  Dividing the Catholic imagination into three parts, we will explore the fallen, the Christological, and the eschatological imagination of the films.  In each case, we will watch a bit of the film and then engage in a theological commentary upon what we view.  And the hope is at the end, we might have time for a bit of discussion.

Part I:  The Elves Leave Middle Earth

Before diving into our three-fold contemplation of the Catholic imagination in The Lord of the Rings, I would like to begin with a scene from the extended version of the film.  Frodo and Sam, early on in their journey, encounter a group of wood elves departing Middle-Earth.


Think for a moment about the role of the “elf” in The Lord of the Rings.  Elves are old, keeping alive the history forgotten by hobbits, dwarves, and men.  They sing hymns and songs that draw the listener into the contemplation of the beautiful.  Their bread (lembas) will fill the stomach in such a way that the one who eats of it will be satisfied after but one bite.  They represent the good magic of Middle-Earth, a time of peace and harmony, one quickly passing away under the threat of Sauron.  They depart Middle-Earth now in droves, their songs fading, and their magic absent or powerless against Sauron’s cancerous power.  In the Fellowship of the Ring, as Frodo and his companions prepare to depart Lorien, J.R. Tolkien writes:

There in the last end of Egladil upon the green grass the parting feast was held; but Frodo ate and drank little, heeding only the beauty of the Lady [Galadriel] and her voice.  She seemed no longer perilous or terrible, nor filled with hidden power.  Already she seemed to him, as by men of later days Elves still at times are seen:  present and yet remote, a living vision of that which has already been left far behind by the flowing streams of Time (419).

Thus, the sojourn of the elves away from Middle-Earth, is a kind of image of the modern condition.  Indeed, elves remember the story of all creation.  And through their songs and language, men, hobbits, and other friendly creatures come to know the enchanted nature of the cosmos, themselves participating in realities beyond their own limited memory.  Frodo, as he rests in Rivendell in The Fellowship, listens to the music of the elves:  “Almost it seemed that the words took shape, and visions of far lands and bright things that he had never yet imagined opened out before him; and the firelit hall became like a golden mist above seas of foam that sighed upon the margins of the world” (261).  But when the elves depart, how will the creatures of Middle-Earth remember the origins of the world?  How will they contemplate the visions of far lands not yet imagined, of the golden mist that rises above the sea?  The memory of the origins of the world is entrusted to hobbits and men, who as we know, are not always up to the task.  Yet, the reader is confronted with this narrative.  He or she is encountering this world through the traditioning of this story by Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, and now presumably Samwise Gamgee.  The enchanted nature of the cosmos may be difficult for a world without elves to discern.  But, The Lord of the Rings invites us to believe in that which is beyond the visible alone.  That there remains a world of mystery unseen to the human eye, forgotten within the discourse of the modern world.   

For the denial of this invisible world, of meaning, of hope in the midst of darkness, the erasure of love itself—this is the destruction of man and woman and hobbit and dwarf.  Yet, if one can believe in that which is not yet seen, there remains hope.  The Lord of the Rings is intended to awaken the reader or the viewer to this reality.  Though the elves are departed, there remains an invisible world, a cosmos of good magic, one not solely oriented toward power, destruction, and efficiency (are these not the a-theological virtues of Mordor?).  And such a world is revealed not simply through the magic of the elves but in the deeds of Frodo, of Aragorn, of Sam, of Gandalf, and a host of others who prove that the courage of hobbits and men and wizards can defeat all dark magic.

In part 2, we will examine the fallen imagination in The Lord of the Rings.